Custom Programs for Groups
& Community Building
Your interest in a Custom Program with VISIONS indicates a commitment to the profound learning that happens when groups of people undertake meaningful projects in another culture.
VISIONS has worked on the Montana Blackfeet Indian Reservation for more than three decades. We have seen that these long-term relationships are the foundation for creating mutual understanding and real change.
We invite you to be an extension of the relationships that we have forged, to have fun and make a difference!
“I had a blast! I believe that community service builds character. I would do this all again in a heartbeat. Throughout this program I learned values that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I also learned not to take anything for granted.”
Custom Programs contain elements of a VISIONS summer program along with ingredients tailored to meet the goals of your group
When the objectives of the program are met, participants will:
- Increase their knowledge of the culture, history and society of the host community
- Gain the community living skills required to thrive as a group
- Develop the hard skills required on a worksite, including tool use
- Develop a respect for diversity, in the broadest sense
- Increase confidence as contributing members of society
- Increase positive attitudes towards interacting, learning and exploring across cultures
- Meaningful Service Work: Choose from multiple projects each day
- Cultural Exchange: Live and work as part of the community
- Adventurous Exploration: See some of the area's best sights
- Reflection & Community Building: Group meetings to reflect on the experience
SERVICE & IMMERSION
The work involves ambitious projects that may be a combination of construction work and social service. Projects are done with community members and participants get to choose from two or three different worksites each day. In one to two weeks on the Blackfeet Reservation, we are able to build a wheelchair ramp for an elder, do maintenance and construction projects at a conservation ranch, help at the food panty and with social service projects for children, and more.
After work ends around 2 pm, the rest of the day includes cultural exchanges, recreation and other activities anchored in the community. We typically set aside one or two full-day activities or excursions for every five work days. Your group will experience the “must-see” sights along with activities that come from long-standing relationships in the community.
In addition to the spontaneous and ongoing community building we do with our local hosts, we meet as a group a few evenings a week in order to reflect on the volunteer and cultural experiences, and to listen to what others have to share.
“My VISIONS trip was the most life-changing experience of my life. Living in the local community immersed us in a culture where family is the number one priority. By the end of the trip I feel like our group truly replicated this concept.”
Making Meaningful Connections
Our home base is the Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary conservation ranch, a few miles outside the main reservation town of Browning. Accommodations of a ranch house, bunkhouse, showers, kitchen and historic out-buildins are basic, but clean and comfortable. The breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountain Front absorbs us. We were originally invited to live here in the early 2000s by the late Elouise Cobell, a tribal member highly respected for her fight to preserve native lands. We continue to live and work here in her honor. While here, you will meet tribal historians, spiritual leaders, storytellers, ranchers and naturalists. You will join in sweat ceremonies, maybe help build a sacred Sun Dance lodge, and attend a powwow. It may just be a few weeks in summer, but a cultural immersion like this provides the deep understanding of many seasons.
“I wanted you to know that things could not have been better with the trip. VISIONS leaders were attentive, energetic, intuitive, and kindly firm, just as I would have hoped. We worked well as a team and the students rose to the challenges facing them.”
WORK HARD, PLAY HARD
Our time will be service-focused, and in the cross-cultural context of working and spending time with our local friends. Our after-work activities will be a blend of cultural immersion and adventure. The following gives an overview of a typical 8-day program. Custom Programs may be as long as two months or more.
- Flight arrival to Kalispell / Glacier International Airport
- Make the two hour drive along Glacier National Park to our homebase at the rach
- Settle in / unpack / orientation
- Welcome Dinner!
Days Two – Six
- Breakfasts at homebase
- Rotating worksites and homebase crews
- End work ~ 2 pm
- Afternoon activities*
- Dinners at homebase
- Evening activities*
- Full day excursion & outing
- Travel to departure airport & see you next time!
Accommodations: We live together on an 1100 acre conservation ranch outside of the main reservation town of Browning. Accommodations are basic, but clean and comfortable. There are bathrooms and showers, running water, and an outdoor patio for gathering. A full packing list is provided before the program.
Food: Meals and snacks are varied and healthy. Members of the group take turns preparing breakfasts and lunches, and a local cook prepares our dinners. Vegetarian options are available and participants with special food requirements provide that information before the program begins.
ACTIVITIES AND EXCURSIONS
- Backpack and camp overnight in the Montana wilderness
- Attend the Indian Days annual powwow, a weekend of dancing, drumming, traditional games and food
- Ride horses along the border of Glacier National Park
- Unwind in the iconic lobby at Glacier Lodge
- Tour the reservation’s historic sites, hear stories, and visit the Museum of the Plains Indian
- Attend an Indian Horse Relay event
- Dive deep into Blackfeet culture during a sweat lodge, beading workshop, and history walk
- Swim in mountain rivers, hike among wildflowers and picnic along crystal-clear lakes
Yellow Bird Woman
Elouise Pepion Cobell, also known by the Blackfeet name Yellow Bird Woman, left an indelible impact on communities far and wide. A tribal elder, rancher and accountant, her story stands out in history as that of what President Obama called “A Champion of Native American rights.” For VISIONS, she represents the model of an engaged citizen, and she connected us to the land, history and community of the Blackfeet Nation in a profound way.
Elouise’s legacy as a tribal activist developed from her career in banking. She served as the Treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe for more than a decade, founded the first national bank located on a reservation and owned by a Native American tribe, and won a MacArthur Genius Award for her work on Native financial literacy. Her credentials do not end there, and most notably Elouise was the lead plaintiff in a landmark class-action suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and Department of the Treasury for mismanagement of Indian funds.
While Treasurer, Elouise discovered irregularities in accounting that showed the Federal Government had been short-changing tribes across the country since the 1800s. She spent more than a decade seeking reform in Washington D.C. before she and other Native American representatives filed the suit in 1996. We now know this case as Cobell v. Salazar, which was ultimately settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion. By then it had spanned three presidencies, engendered seven trials and gone before a federal appeals court ten times. The settlement was allocated to paying personal damages, repurchasing land for reservations and communal tribal ownership, and a scholarship fund for Native students named the Cobell Educational Scholarship Fund in honor of Elouise. In the aftermath of the settlement, the Secretary of the Interior created a new commission to evaluate the Indian Trust system and in 2016 President Obama awarded Elouise with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Elouise was an inspired communicator. And every summer she took time out of her rigorous schedule to meet with VISIONS students, who were riveted by hearing her account of Blackfeet struggles and the throughline relationship of those struggles to the injustices that had been propped up by the case . We were also honored to hear about the Cobell case directly from Elouise, who always brought clarity to complex and century-old issues.
In the early 2000s, Elouise invited our program to be the summer caretakers of a beautiful conservation ranch on the reservation, a responsibility and homebase that we continue to honor today. After Elouise passed in 2011, the ranch was renamed the Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary. Although she is no longer with us in body, Elouise is part of our program through spirit and family. Her brother, Dale Pepion, managed the ranch and was a beloved friend until his passing in January 2019, and her niece Joan Cobell is our dinner cook.
To learn more about Elouise’s impact on VISIONS, read here what our Executive Director, Katherine Dayton, shared after Elouise passed. And to learn more about Elouise’s work, check out the documentary, 100 Years.
Montana Blackfeet Blog Posts
Keeping the dream alive by honoring MLK. Our Montana Teen Summer Programs foster a deeper understanding of cultural diversity and humanitarianism. Learn more about Dr. King and VISIONS Montana programs.
Read and watch a heartfelt interview with 2019 Montana Blackfeet participant, Emma Friedman, about her teen volunteer experience.